Recriminations have been flowing thick and fast in Stratford upon Avon since the recent earth-shattering local elections saw Conservative councillor numbers decimated in this normally bluest of towns. The ‘victims’ themselves prefer to accuse their beleaguered MP, Nadhim Zahawi, but the reasons for their defeat run somewhat deeper.
One of the more intriguing results of the recent local elections was the change of control at Stratford on Avon District Council from Conservative to Liberal Democrat. Let’s not underplay this; Stratford has been a cast-iron Conservative stronghold for decades. The wrestling of local control from them provides stark evidence of a simmering discontent among residents and businesses.
Passing the buck
A closer look at the results reveals the usual countryside Conservative popularity in rural areas where change is still viewed with suspicion. No, it is in the town itself where the frustration has manifested most strongly. It’s true that the smaller Stratford Town Council has been dominated by Lib Dems for some time, but town councils’ power is nominal. They act as little more than talking shops that offer rarely-accepted advice on planning matters and running ‘In Bloom’ or shop window competitions.
What has been fascinating since the seismic collapse of the Conservative vote in Stratford District Council, is the finger pointing being undertaken by some of the bigwigs that have lost their positions of power. They’ve almost all placed the blame squarely at the door of the disgraced local MP Nadhim Zahawi, citing discontent with his tax-related behaviour as the major reason for people ‘protest voting’ against his recent re-selection as their Conservative parliamentary candidate.
Whilst this may have occupied voters’ thoughts to a degree, there is a problem with their logic. Which is, of course, the obvious fact that it was those very bigwigs that facilitated his re-selection! Like so many of their colleagues across the country, they tried to re-brand themselves ‘Local Conservatives’, but that only works if their ‘localness’ is deemed a success. Passing the blame onto Zahawi reveals an intriguing level of self-delusion.
What their rather-too-simple explanation singularly fails to recognise is another, incontrovertible factor – the widespread dissatisfaction with Stratford District Council.
Within the town, a palpable sense of frustration has been building among not only the public but also the traders and businesspeople. In this historic market town, the good burghers and shopkeepers of Stratford have lived happily for centuries with occasional markets that have offered local producers and craftspeople the chance to ply their wares.
Nowadays, the markets which traditionally occupied the dedicated Rother Street site, have expanded inexorably into main thoroughfares, resulting in multiple street closures and obstructing shopfronts to the detriment of walk-in trade.
The ever-growing list of market days suits the town’s councils, as they offer easy income through the rental of street space. In cahoots with Stratford’s Business Improvement District (BID), the councils have conspired to ensure that as many markets as possible are shoehorned into the town centre, irrespective of the quality of their stalls and despite the growing protestations of the locals. Rubbing yet more salt into the wounds of town centre businesses is the fact that many market stalls sell food and drink on the very doorsteps of permanent hostelries.
‘Stupidity, ignorance and short-sightedness’
Now, though, the businesses are fighting back. They have come together as Business Action Groups (BAGS) and have widespread support from town centre traders. With over 80 business operators signing up to fight the proliferation of the markets, the district and town councils and the Stratford BID may find themselves ranged against a formidable foe.
Colin Pike is a leading member of BAGS. He is scathing about the governance of the town in recent years. When I spoke to him, he explained that BAGS was formed so that businesses and their interests would be “properly represented by a functional and representative BID of mostly business owners [..] without ‘observers’ and ‘influencers’ from councils [..] all greasing along together, protecting their own interests.”
He went on to say that “the other main aim is to enhance and protect the town’s key cultural heritage spaces and assets which have all been downgraded on the busiest trading days of the year by stupidity, ignorance and short-sightedness.”
BAGS divides the blame for the increasing vacuity of the town centre between an ineffective BID and the feckless, complicit councils. While the group is hopeful that the difficulties with BID can be resolved by either a change of management or even its complete removal by a vote at an EGM, Pike reserves particular contempt for the councils. “Stratford’s councils need to step up and sort their poor decision-making”, he says, “and a functional and representative business group will ask the right questions which they won’t be able to ignore.”
Deaf to the disgruntled
One accusation constantly levelled at Stratford District Council over recent years is that they have been remiss in not listening to their electorate. This unwillingness to engage has manifested itself in the oft-heard refrain from locals that “I don’t bother to contact them because they’ll do what they want anyway.” There is palpable mistrust and disdain for their elected representatives. Add to this a perceived pattern of financial wastefulness, and it’s plain to see that there are many more reasons for the Conservative wipe-out than just dislike of their MP’s dubious tax affairs.
In the past year alone, the departing Conservative district council leader Tony Jefferson oversaw a failed merger with nearby Warwick District Council that cost Stratford taxpayers at least £160,000.
A further £100k has been spent cleaning up after careless contractors. The former town tip is being developed into a Local Nature Reserve and is known to be contaminated. But the contractors dragged the contamination – including medical waste and asbestos – up to the surface, rather than leaving it safely buried.
According to local action group, Friends of Lench Meadows, the land remains contaminated with glass and other detritus, despite the money spent on sorting out the issue. The district council oversaw the poorly-executed contract and, as a result, have referred themselves to the Environment Agency.
These losses of hundreds of thousands of pounds means that claims by the ex-Leader of the council that the town’s finances are ‘in safe hands’ have rung rather hollow with voters.
There are other issues too: a new waste collection regime that adds to householders’ already-spiralling council tax bills, failure to clean up a desolate street at the town’s northern entry, and unimaginatively hiking parking prices (including the removal of cut-price parking for the elderly in a town with a rapidly-growing ageing population!) to raise revenue. None of these have endeared the outgoing regime to their public.
Meet the new boss
Now, the focus shifts to the victorious Liberal Democrats. Will they be any better?
If they start by adopting the mantra that they are ‘servants, not masters’, they will already be one step ahead. It behoves them to listen to those that have called for change. Too often we hear politicians say “what the people want is …”, when in truth this is a thinly-veiled way of saying “what we’re going to do is …”.
Perhaps it really is time for the people to ‘take back control’ – from the politicians!